Although they have been decently priced in recent years, Sony Walkman MP3 players have never been straight-up cheap--until now. The latest models, including the second-gen E-Series featured here, offer rock-bottom pricing that might make even SanDisk blush. Sony may have cut some corners with features and design, but the company managed to keep its signature great audio quality and solid battery life--and all in the name of proffering the first brand-new 16GB player we've seen that costs just $100 (you can also get an 8GB version for $80).
Like its predecessor, the second-gen Sony E-Series has a fairly standard design, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it makes the player very straightforward to operate. Below the 2-inch screen are the main playback controls: a five-way control pad, a back/home button, and an option key that brings up various contextual menus. One thing we noticed with the second-gen player is that the "up" arrow on the keypad is slightly difficult to press. Sony includes a dedicated volume rocker on the right spine--always a nice touch--as well as a hold switch. The bottom of the unit houses the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a standard mini USB port--we dig that Sony elected to revert to this more universal connection, though accessory compatibility may be a problem as a result.
The second-gen E-Series is roughly the same size as its predecessor, measuring a compact 3.2 inches tall by 1.7 inches wide by 0.3 inch deep, so it's definitely pocket-friendly and would not be an unreasonable thing to strap to your arm or waistband at the gym. It comes in a two color options--red or black--though the top of the player is all black plastic, which gives the red version a two-tone look.
The main menu of the E-Series is typical of those in the Walkman line, featuring a grid of icons that indicate the player's principle functions. Sadly, there's no option to change the wallpaper or theme for this Walkman: white font on a black background is what you get. In the music submenu, items are sorted by ID3 tag into artists, albums, genres, and so on, or you may navigate by folder (as it is arranged on your desktop). Playlists have their own icon on the main screen and do not show up in the music submenu; it's a bit odd, but not a knock. Tracks are split into sections of letters (A-B, C-E, and so forth) for speedy navigation, and you may browse albums by album art for a more visual experience. Album art can also be magnified on the playback screen, though not to full screen.
Getting music and other content onto the player is an easy process; it works with a variety of jukeboxes (such as Windows Media Player or Rhapsody), or you can use the fabulously light Sony Content Transfer app, which allows for drag and drop from your hard drive or from the iTunes interface. And we're happy to report that the E-Series continues to be Mac-compatible, though Content Transfer is limited to Windows (Mac users can simply use Finder to drag and drop files).
The E-Series Walkman includes a decent smattering of features, which are slightly different than those offered by the Nano--it's a matter of personal preference which you find more suitable. The E-Series supports MP3, secure WMA, unprotected AAC, and LPCM (lossless) audio. The device also plays photos (JPEG) and video (MPEG-4, H.264/AVC, and WMV), though the latter often requires conversion for the screen, a 262K color TFT number with a 240x320 resolution (QVGA). The player supports videos purchased and rented from Amazon Video On Demand, as well. When you get sick of digital, you can tune into the integrated FM radio, which offers an autoscan function and 30 preset slots. Notably absent from this Walkman is any support for podcasts. Also, Sony removed the Rhapsody DNA, which is a bit of a bummer if you ask us.
Performance of the E-Series Walkman is nearly excellent across the board. Music sounds exceptionally clean, clear, and balanced, with a nice presence on the low-end, warm, rich mids, and detailed highs. Sony includes a variety of sound-enhancement options, including four presets and two, five-band custom EQs, so if the flat setting doesn't do it for you, you should have no problem tweaking the sound to your liking. We recommend swapping in your favorite pair of headphones, as the stock earbuds sound just OK and may not be comfortable for everyone.
Videos and photos look bright and crisp on the small screen, and viewing angles are good, though the screen is susceptible to glare. The one disappointment is that the rated battery life for the second-gen E-Series has decreased notably and for no discernible reason. Rather than 45 hours for audio and 8 for video, this player is rated for 30 and 4 hours, respectively. Those aren't bad numbers, but they're also not nearly as impressive as before--we hope CNET Labs will beat them in testing (check back soon for those results).